This report back is meant to show how protest marshals, imposed structure and hierarchically organized groups can prevent cohesive direct action, organic resistance, and collective decision making.
On July 6th, 2017, an attempt to escalate an action regarding an incredibly pressing issue was co-opted by socialists. During rush-hour traffic, about 40 people gathered to participate in a direct action against the Medicaid cuts and “Trumpcare.” Elderly people, disabled people, trans people, a few anarchists and plenty of socialists came together to stage a die in outside of Senator Pat Toomey’s office.
In the pouring rain, we blocked a busy intersection downtown, while laying in the street with tombstones symbolizing the deaths that Trumpcare may cause. While those who could were lying in the rain, 15 marshals in bright orange jackets, most of whom belonged to the DSA or Socialist Alternative (a top-down, nationwide organization that campaigns for policy reforms and is very eager to sell you their newspapers) scrambled to find people to order around. There was some confusion in the crowd that was seemingly caused by the unnecessary visual dichotomy of those with authority (orange vests) and those allegedly without it, (due to their lack of orange vests).
Despite this, the die-in was a beautiful and powerful spectacle. After being told to get up, still charged with some adrenaline and energy, the crowd felt that the action shouldn’t be over. Led by elderly and disabled people, the crowd filtered into a lightly trafficked street. While beginning to start up chants, we heard shouts from the self designated marshals to stop the march. Even though there was absolutely no police presence, “leaders” with megaphones and socialist t-shirts shouted “You’re going to get arrested!,” ordering non-affiliated individuals to stay on the sidewalk.
Naturally, authoritative commands from socialists in bright orange jackets split up the once unified crowd of people. But many of us were determined to go on. Among the crowd that kept marching were the most vulnerable people, as well as the people who were most likely to be affected by the new potential legislation: a person in a wheelchair, a person with a walker, a cancer survivor, many elderly people, and a handful of young people unaffiliated with any party. Trailing behind on the sidewalk yelling at us were the young, able-bodied members of Socialist Alternative and the DSA insisting that our marching and chanting was not worth the risk of arrest by the invisible police presence. While urging people that arrest was unlikely, an elderly woman annoyed with the crowd’s hesitance said to a friend of mine “I came out here for a protest, what the hell is this?”
It was bureaucratic bullshit and an amazing example of imposed hierarchies thwarting the ability and power of natural, collectivized direct action. The members of SA and the DSA, with their megaphones, fancy jackets, and fancy well-printed signs were able to garner the support of more than half of the march.
In the end, about a dozen people stuck with it. The risk seemed pretty low since there was not a police car in sight, and no calls for dispersal, despite the socialists’ warnings. Perhaps it’s worth noting that even if there was a threat, a few people were prepared for arrest when going into the action, but could not even gain contact with the city police due to the aggressive over policing of the socialist marshals. While turning the corner to reach the starting point of the action, many of those still marching spoke of staging a sit-down occupation of the lobby of Pat Toomey’s office building. On the sidewalk, trailing just behind us were the frazzled socialists and their manipulated squad of people. Before we were able to enter the building, Socialist Alternative demanded that they be heard once again. At this point in time, they announced their official withdrawal from the action. “I gotta protect my people,” one member said. By the time they were done collecting their signs and megaphones, a singular police officer entered the building and assisted the lobby staff in locking the doors. The rest of us looked in each other’s eyes, defeated and fucking pissed off.
I actually pity the activists working under the authority of Socialist Alternative and similar organizations. They simply follow orders and conform to pre-established structures, which blinds their ability to see the reality of a situation. It prevents them from thinking for themselves, participating freely and experiencing that magic rush that comes from organic, collective power. And anyways, people who are manipulated, manipulate people, it makes sense.
It could be cool to have a discussion about what happened during this day, but members of Socialist Alternative spend more time selling their organization than talking with people about any campaign, ideology or personal/political matter. If they were to spend less time desperately trying to get me to sign an email list or a buy a paper, perhaps we could have meaningful conversations that would prevent things like this from happening. Perhaps we could have mutual respect and it would actually mean something when they repeat words like “comrade” and “solidarity.”